How Animals React to Total Solar Eclipses: A Fascinating Study

Written by Camilla Jessen

Mar.08 - 2024 11:03 AM CET

Discover the surprising behaviors of animals during total solar eclipses.

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From breeding tortoises to singing gibbons, researchers at Fort Worth Zoo in Texas are set to uncover how these celestial events affect animal routines.

As the day turns into night during a total solar eclipse, the animal kingdom presents a unique spectacle of behaviors. Researchers are gearing up to observe these phenomena at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas this April, continuing a fascinating study that began with the 2017 eclipse in South Carolina.

Unexpected Animal Behaviors During Solar Eclipses

Adam Hartstone-Rose, a researcher from North Carolina State University, reflects on past observations: "To our astonishment, most of the animals did surprising things."

The study, published in the journal Animals, described how Galapagos tortoises, typically inactive, engaged in breeding activities. They “generally do absolutely nothing all day … during the peak of the eclipse, they all started breeding,” Hartstone-Rose said. The cause of the behavior still remains unclear.

A pair of mated Siamangs — a type of gibbon known for their morning calls — sang unusual tunes during the peak of the eclipse.

Some male giraffes started galloping, displaying what seemed to be anxiety, while the flamingos gathered protectively around their young. Scientists note that various animals exhibit behaviors indicative of an early dusk.

The cause of these unusual animal behaviors during solar eclipses remains a topic of curiosity.

Collaborative Research Efforts

Zoos along the eclipse path, including those in Little Rock, Arkansas; Toledo, Ohio; and Indianapolis, are inviting visitors to assist in tracking animal reactions.

“It’s really high stakes. We have a really short period to observe them and we can’t repeat the experiment,” explained Jennifer Tsuruda, an entomologist at the University of Tennessee, who studied honeybee colonies during the 2017 eclipse.

This collaborative effort extends the research possibilities, comparing behaviors across different locations and conditions.

During the eclipse, the honeybees observed by Tsuruda reduced their foraging activity, similar to their behavior at night, except those from the most food-deprived hives behaved differently.

“During a solar eclipse, there’s a conflict between their internal rhythms and external environment,” mentioned Olav Rueppell from the University of Alberta.

Nate Bickford, a researcher at the Oregon Institute of Technology, noted that “solar eclipses actually mimic short, fast-moving storms,” leading to darker skies and prompting animals to seek shelter.

Post-2017 eclipse, Bickford examined data from wildlife tracking devices, noting changes in the behavior of flying bald eagles and feral horses during the eclipse, indicating alterations in speed, direction, and possibly seeking shelter as if anticipating a storm on the plains.

Future Research

The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the entire U.S. was in August, during the late summer. The next eclipse in April presents researchers with the chance to explore new queries, such as its effects on springtime animal migrations.

Many species of songbirds migrate at night, leading Andrew Farnsworth from Cornell University to ponder, “When there are night-like conditions during the eclipse, will birds think it’s time to migrate and take flight?” To investigate, his team will examine weather radar data, which tracks flying birds, bats, and insects, to determine if the eclipse prompts increased avian activity.

Indoor pets' reactions might be influenced more by their owners' behavior—whether they're excited or indifferent about the eclipse—than by the celestial event itself, according to Raffaela Lesch, an animal researcher at the University of Arkansas.

"Dogs and cats pay a lot of attention to us, in addition to their internal clocks," she observed.

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